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To transform VA, Army vet's GetVetsHelp app aims to reduce veterans' suicides

Erin Arvedlund, Inquirer Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, December 7, 2017, 11:14 AM

Mike Manning, CEO and founder of CarePartners Plus, shown here in his Horsham office, reinvented himself from an Army officer and hospital CEO to engineer software that helps veterans like himself access healthcare and benefits, Friday, Dec. 1, 2017. Called GetVetsHelp, the app was in pilot testing at the VA here in Philly. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer . .

Michael Manning reinvented himself from an Army officer and hospital CEO to found a medical software company – with a new app that helps fellow veterans access the oft-criticized Veterans Administration.

The software application, GetVetsHelp, was tested this fall by veterans at both the VA and the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Center City. If the VA accepts GetVetsHelp, the software app could go live next year.

“The idea is sitting on the VA secretary’s desk, just waiting for his signature,” Manning said.

GetVetsHelp functions like an early warning system. Veterans log in through a tablet or computer at the VA or local veterans center, and type in what services they need, whether for substance-abuse help, suicide prevention, or apartments to prevent homelessness. GetVetsHelp can even order a Lyft car-share so the veteran can reach a nearby VA hospital.

With a fully transparent software system that tracks vets’ pleas for help, “we can end the suicide of 20 veterans a day,” Manning said. “The data trail creates transparency in the VA system.”

Questions remain, however. The app was tested on just 175 veterans. Can it be scaled up? And will it actually improve connections to the VA system?

The idea grew out of 2014 hearings held by City Councilman David Oh, a retired Army second lieutenant, on how to improve the VA, which was digging out from scandals involving years-long backlogs of appointments and disappearing patient paperwork.

GetVetsHelp aims to solve that, one veteran at a time: Think of it as SurveyMonkey meets medical records, plus a data trail. GetVetsHelp keeps tabs on all the vets’ requests for help and services. And if they don’t get what they need, someone up the chain of command could be held accountable.

“The VA needed to be fully modernized across 1,700 facilities, and I know that happens with technology,” Manning said. “I talked to the VA in Philadelphia, and they are wonderful. But they had that thousand-yard stare in their eyes. Technology could prevent patients from falling through the cracks.”

Manning, 63, has worked for decades as a hospital executive, an Army medic and supply officer, and health-care administrator; all of that experience came together with the new, privately held company CarePartners Plus, based in Horsham. A native of Frankford in Northeast Philadelphia, Manning said he graduated from Archbishop Ryan High School as “a poor kid from a poor neighborhood.”

He joined the Army and became a medic, serving from 1974 to 1989 and leaving as a captain. His first job out of the military was as a hospital administrator in Pittsburgh, and between 1989 and 2006 Manning worked in corporate middle and upper hospital management positions, both nonprofit and for-profit.

“I was a corpsman for a little while and learned my way around medicine that way. Plus, I learned how hospitals made money as the materials manager. I did all the contracting, all the negotiating for goods and services, and then in 1991, as the hospital business was entering the managed-care era, contracting with insurance companies for large groups of people.”

After stints in Pittsburgh and Louisiana, Manning returned to Philadelphia in 2000. He founded CarePartners Plus in 2007 with several partners. Its software to survey patients about their care began popping up in doctors’ offices at the University of Pennsylvania and Carilion Health System in Virginia, the firm’s largest customer. CarePartners Plus, which now has 17 employees, commercialized its patient engagement platform and raised money from institutional investors including BioAdvance, an early-stage life sciences fund.

“Patients’ answers — all saved as computer data — drive the outcomes for their health care,” said Manning.

That same software has been adapted for VA use—under the app GetVetsHelp.

“The VA staff and medical professionals are amazing,” Manning said. “But the veteran comes in and tells his story, over and over and over again. Traditionally, their story is all reduced to a paper report. But in the meantime, he or she needs a home, a drug counselor, a doctor’s appointment. It’s all manual, it’s all paper. The VA has a computerized system but doesn’t cover everything.”

Jon J. Peterson, Left, Chief Operating Officer, and Mike Manning, right, CEO and Founder of CarePartners Plus, shown here with the software loaded on a phone and tablet, in their Horsham office. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer .

The new VA secretary, David Shulkin, a Philly-trained physician who worked at Penn and Temple, wants to keep a promise of “same-day access” for veterans, particularly after some died while languishing on secret wait lists at VA hospitals, or as calls to the VA suicide hotline went unanswered.

Said Gordon Woodrow, an IT specialist at CarePartners Plus: “We create a data trail that makes someone responsible. At the end of a three-minute questionnaire on GetVetsHelp, the veteran answers complex medical, mental, and social questions, and they now understand there’s a chain of command. Now they know it will be harder for them to fall through the cracks.”

“Also, the higher-ups know what’s going on because the computer software keeps track of everything,” Manning said. “Now if you’re suicidal or homeless, you can be screened electronically and the VA can intervene faster. We’ll find out if the VA really wants that.”

Manning, for his part, has endured many ailments, including an autoimmune disorder that has forced him to walk with a cane. But he’s employing veterans on the GetVetsHelp project, such as Phillip Clark, who tested the pilot and helped about 50 other vets try it as well.

“My caseworker told me about the pilot, and a lot of vets stay away from the VA because they get there and have all kinds of issues, and when you go to an environment where you’re treated like cattle, you don’t want to go back,” said Clark, a Marine, firefighter, and first responder who ended up homeless. “This is so much better. It’s one-stop shopping. If this is implemented, I don’t have to repeat my story to every individual. It helped me better understand how useful it would be for all veterans.”

Erin Arvedlund, Inquirer Staff Writer

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